Woodpeckers perfectly suited for their vertical lifestyle


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      A Red-bellied Woodpecker looks for sunflower seeds at a feeder during a snowstorm.

For most woodpeckers, a vertical lifestyle’s not a problem. These birds even have amazing adaptations to help them with their specialist lifestyles. For instance, their tail feathers are usually quite stiff to provide a means to prop the body against tree trunks as they excavate into the bark either in search of food or to fashion a roost or nesting site. Since they spend so much of their time hammering against tree trunks, woodpeckers even have special “shock absorbing” cushioning to protect their little bird brains.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                    A male Downy Woodpecker climbs along a branch.

The region is home to seven species of woodpeckers, ranging in size from the sparrow-sized downy woodpecker to the crow-sized pileated woodpecker.

English naturalist Mark Catesby, who died in 1749, gave the large pileated woodpecker the name of “large red-crested woodpecker.” Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus apparently gave this woodpecker its scientific name of Dryocopus pileatus. The Latin word, pileatus, translates into English as “capped,” and is derived from an old term that literally means “felt cap.” So, apparently, this woodpecker’s red crest reminded early observers of a red cloth cap. Another English naturalist, John Latham, apparently gave the bird the common name of pileated woodpecker, basing the name on the scientific name established by Linnaeus.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service The Pileated Woodpecker is surprisingly evasive for such a large bird. Their presence in a woodland might go unnoticed if not for their noisy vocalizations.

The pileated woodpecker has actually had an abundance of common names associated with it, including wood-hen and “Good Lord Bird,” which was inspired by the common exclamation people make when they’re surprised by an unexpected observation of this rather large, often noisy, woodpecker.

Beyond this history of how the bird eventually got the name pileated woodpecker, there are a lot of folk names for this particular bird, including such interesting ones as “king of the woods” and “stump breaker.”

The loud vocalization of this woodpecker has also inspired names such as wood hen, Indian hen and laughing woodpecker. If anyone knows of other common names for the pileated woodpecker, I’d enjoy hearing about them.

Depending on whether you believe that the ivory-billed woodpecker still exists somewhere in Cuba or Arkansas, the pileated woodpecker is the largest of North America’s woodpeckers.

Pileated woodpeckers are cavity-nesting birds, and they use their large, stout bills to efficiently excavate their own nesting cavities in dead or dying trees. These cavities can be used in subsequent nesting seasons by such cavity-nesting birds as Eastern screech-owls and wood ducks, which are incapable of excavating their own nesting cavities.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                            A Red-bellied Woodpecker stops by a feeder during a snowstorm.

Male pileated woodpeckers show a red whisker stripe on the side of the face that is absent in the female. Otherwise, the sexes look similar. These large woodpeckers — they can reach a length of about 19 inches — often forage close to the ground on old stumps or fallen logs. The pileated woodpecker is widespread in the United States and Canada, favoring wooded areas in both countries. This woodpecker has proven adaptable, now thriving even in suburban areas offering sufficient woodland habitat.

During the recent bout of wintry weather with its abundant snowfall, a pair of red-bellied woodpecker have joined the downy woodpeckers as daily visitors. This is a bird that was once considered primarily a resident of the southeastern United States. It has expanded its range northward over the past century. It is often confused with its relative, the red-headed woodpecker. In truth, the red-bellied is named for a feature not readily apparent. Although it has red feathers on its belly, they are often hidden as the bird clings to the trunk of a tree.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                            A feeder stocked with peanuts attracts a Downy Woodpecker.

The downy woodpecker, which occupies the other end of the size scale from its larger relative, is a rather frequent visitor to feeders. This small woodpecker, which is only about six to seven inches in length, frequents a variety of habitats, including open woodlands, parks and well-planted yards. The male shows a red crown patch at the back of the head, a feature which is absent in the female.

At feeders, downy woodpeckers like sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet cakes. Away from feeders, this small woodpecker is quite efficient at boring into trees in search of insects and their larvae.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  A Downy Woodpecker clings to the underside of a branch.

The other woodpeckers in the region include red-bellied woodpecker, Northern flicker, hairy woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker and red-headed woodpecker. Worldwide, there are about 200 species in the woodpecker family, which also consists of sapsuckers, piculets and wrynecks.

Some species have some very colorful names, such as the red-throated wryneck, arrowhead piculet, ochre-collared piculet, black-rumped flameback, crimson-winged woodpecker, imperial woodpecker, brown-capped pygmy woodpecker, splendid woodpecker, melancholy woodpecker and red-naped sapsucker.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                                              The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a medium-sized member of the woodpecker family.


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